TEL AVIV — US-mediated talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia on normalization are indeed ongoing, but Israel will have to pay a real price in terms of concessions to the Palestinians for such a move to take place, a senior Israeli official told Al-Monitor this week.
The same optimistic-yet-pessimistic assessment was also expressed on Sunday by a senior US official, who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.
"The desire exists; the administration understands that an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia will serve the interests of all sides and also the interests of the Middle East. There were many difficulties between the Biden administration and the Saudi leadership, but at this moment it seems to me that the sides have overcome this and there is an aspiration to try to bring about this historic agreement that will change the face of the Middle East," the official said.
At the same time, the official clarified that talks on such a move are in the initial stages, and while prospects exist of a breakthrough, they are not high and it is too soon to celebrate.
These Israeli and American statements came against the backdrop of recent reports by the Mako news site and The Jerusalem Post, among others, about accelerated contacts on this issue between the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spoke on the phone twice in recent weeks, with Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani facilitating the calls, according to an unnamed foreign diplomatic source cited by The Jerusalem Post.
"Bahrain is the most positive element," a former senior Israeli diplomatic source told Al-Monitor. "They are a quiet but ultra-positive factor; they are connected to Saudi Arabia and have good relations with Israel; they have a US Fifth Fleet base so they are also connected to Washington; and there is nothing they want more than a square axis that starts in Washington, passes through Jerusalem, Riyadh and ends with them, on the verge of the Persian Gulf vis-a-vis Iran."
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told Al-Monitor on Saturday that he believes some kind of breakthrough in normalization talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia could well occur by the end of the year.
Cohen also confirmed Al-Monitor's report that the Negev Forum is scheduled to hold its second annual conference in Morocco in about one month, with its previous participants — Israel, the United States, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt — and "other countries that are not yet parties to the Abraham Accords." The issue also came up in meetings held by Foreign Ministry Director General Ronen Levy in Washington last week.
Is a historic Israeli-Saudi breakthrough indeed feasible? Probably, but in the Middle East, everything that can go wrong usually does. The motivation is there with all sides having much to gain; the political will and ability to implement such a move is less certain. This question is more complicated in 2023 than ever before, given Netanyahu's mutual chokehold coalition with hard-line nationalist extremists.
Reports in The Times of Israel and elsewhere according to which former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro is being considered as an official administration point person on the Abraham Accords underscore the Biden administration’s determination to exhaust the Israeli-Saudi effort.
Shapiro, who served in Israel for six years under President Barack Obama, is considered one of the most effective American ambassadors of the current era. He maintained excellent relations with all Netanyahu government officials, although much of his time in office was characterized by tensions, and sometimes even open hostility between Obama and Netanyahu. Shapiro is a veteran Middle East hand who has held senior posts in Congress and the National Security Council, he knows the Israeli side well, and is also accepted and liked in Arab states.
"If there's anyone who can promote this event and the effort between Israel and Saudi Arabia, it's Shapiro," a senior Israeli diplomatic source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.
The prospects of a Shapiro appointment are bolstered by the surprise planned departure from office of US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides this summer.
"It will take at least six months for the administration to choose a new ambassador and go through the hearing and appointment procedures in Washington, at which time Shapiro can be a worthy replacement, especially if we are talking about historically important contacts, such as the effort to make peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia," said the senior Israeli diplomatic source.
However, prospects of a historic Israeli-Saudi agreement do not necessarily depend on personal appointments. This is a complex move that will require concessions from two of the three sides: The United States will have to provide the Saudis with the items on their shopping list, which include technology for nuclear power reactors, upgraded weapons and a defense alliance, while Israel will have to concede to such an upgrade of Saudi military capabilities and make significant concessions toward the Palestinians, as per the Arab world’s demands, most recently at this month’s Arab League summit.
"This will be a clear demand of Riyadh. They will not settle for symbolic gestures, only real moves, such as renewing the peace process, maybe even freezing settlements, real commitments on [Muslim control of] the Temple Mount, and more. It is not certain that Netanyahu is capable of delivering these goods,” said the senior Israeli diplomatic source.
This begs the ultimate question of whether Netanyahu could accept the Saudi demands given his position as head of the most right-wing coalition in Israeli history. Judging by statements and acts of Netanyahu’s coalition partners to increase tensions with the Palestinians, the answer is probably "no."
Can Netanyahu replace the coalition with political parties more amenable to concessions to the Saudis? Again, probably not. Centrist opposition leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid are firmly ensconced on the political fence.
"Gantz and Lapid don't believe a word Netanyahu says; Gantz has already tried it and got burned, he barely survived. … Lapid is more stubborn than Gantz," said an Israeli political source on condition of anonymity.
Still, if the US administration throws all its weight behind this initiative, and Israel deploys its lobby in Washington to help the Democrats push through congressional approval of the controversial Saudi demands, Gantz and Lapid will face a harsh dilemma. Should they join Netanyahu's coalition to replace the extremists and become signatories to the most important historic peace agreement since the 1979 treaty with Egypt? Will they refuse even in the face of such an unprecedented opportunity? Most political commentators believe they will, but that's just a guess.